One of the main problems riders have with their saddles is keeping them stable on their horses’ backs. When you stop and think about it, it really is a big ask for something rigid to stay stable on something that moves in all directions, often with something on top that is also moving sometimes more than it should be!
Often saddle instability is very obvious to the rider but sometimes they just get an inkling that this could be an issue due to some of the signs their horse may be showing. Examples are
If you feel that your saddle is not stable, ask someone to watch you ride and/or take a video. It is great to work on a figure of 8 where you are changing direction going directly away from the person watching or videoing. Ride in walk, rising and sitting trot and canter on this figure of 8 pattern. This allows the horse and rider to be seen from the inside and outside of each circle as well as their change of direction from behind.
Common problems are
Whilst not all of these problems can always be directly attributed to the saddle, many of then can be. Riders will need to work both with their coach and a saddle fitter to work out which are saddle related and also be aware that they can be very inter-related.
Take the first issue. Saddle slip where the saddle moves up on to the horses shoulders. Yes – this absolutely can be due to poor saddle choice and fit such as -
Sideways saddle slip is also incredibly multifactorial. Studies have demonstrated that this is often due to a hindleg lameness in the horse. This makes sense as if one hindleg is not pushing as much as the other, the back muscles won’t be as developed as much on that side. Many riders will struggle to feel this and it may not be very apparent at all, but certainly enough to affect muscle development. What most riders are more aware of is asymmetric shoulders. Sometimes the shoulders are different but often it is the difference in the musculature behind the shoulder which makes one look more pronounced.
All horses are asymmetrical as are riders so unless straightness is addressed on a daily basis , asymmetries can become worse and lead to unsoundness. Regular saddle fit is essential for these horses as the saddle panels will wear unevenly, compounding the problem over time. Asymmetrical riders will also cause a saddle to slip sideways and wear the panels differently. Riders may be crooked in that they may prefer to sit on one seat bone, so sit more to one side or may be twisted and have one seat bone further in front of the other. Rider awareness work is essential here, both on and off the horse.
Extremely wide horses with little or no withers will always be more difficult to prevent sideways saddle slip, no matter how symmetrical horse and rider are. For any horse and especially these ones, it is essential that the tree of the saddle truly fits the horse’s back profile, not just the gullet and channel width but their shape when viewed from the side. This is the only way that minimal packing can be used and the saddle can be kept close to the horses back. Likewise the seat of the saddle needs to be relatively similar in shape to that of the horse’s back or else excessive packing will be required. Think about a very wide horse with a rider who needs a particularly narrow twist. There will need to be some distance between the horses back and the seat surface to allow both to be comfortable. The greater the distance the further the rider is away from the horse. This then accentuates any lateral tendency of the rider.
An important sidenote here is that sometimes it is not just the packing within the panels that becomes uneven in saddles that slip sideways. If left unaddressed for too long the actual leather can stretch and the panel placement can be affected. This is a much bigger problem to address with your saddle needing to be sent away to a saddler. If buying a saddle second hand always ask your fitter to check this.
Saddles that bounce are often too wide or have a tree that is the wrong shape for the horse. You will need to ask your saddle fitter to help you with this. If it is a saddle they have fitted to your horse before, they will often advise you of what you could do until they are able to get to see your horse. If they have not seen the saddle on your horse before then you shouldn’t continue to use it until you have professional help. Likewise for saddles that twist or wobble. This can happen due to a combination of the above where the saddle may have pushed forwards onto or abutting the shoulders. If one of the horse’s shoulders is bigger that the other, as it comes back to hit the displaced saddle, it diagonally swivels the saddle during that phase of the stride. Again – this is absolutely a saddle fitter job and no riding until seen.
If the cause of your saddle instability is not primarily saddle related you should look at reasons how and why it happened. As mentioned earlier in this article, it is highly unlikely that any horse or rider is perfectly symmetrical, both in the way we move but also in our muscle development. Continual attention to straightness, groundwork, physio/bodywork, good hoof care and regular saddle fitting will help immensely and is our responsibility to our horses wellbeing, particularly before and during their ridden careers.
Dr Victoria Hamilton is an icon in the Western Australian Equestrian Community, with a wealth of experience as a veterinarian, coach, breeder and international dressage competitor. As one of Australia’s top dressage riders, her love of horses is contagious and apparent in everything she does.